Santa Ana, CA

Tactics Used

Reverse stings
Auto seizure
Community service
Public education
Neighborhood action
SOAP orders
John school
Web stings
License suspension

Santa Ana is a city of approximately 325,000 residents, located in Orange County in southern California. Prostitution and sex trafficking are well-known problems in the city and in the surrounding communities of Anaheim and Garden Grove, and many police responses to prostitution are driven from complaints from residents and businesses.   Santa Ana has developed a reputation for being a place where men can buy sex, and the city has been identified by police and social services as a stop on smaller circuits that include Garden Grove, Anaheim, San Diego, and Los Angeles.  Among the problems connected to the local commercial sex market has been cases of child endangerment.   For example, in August 2015 a man was arrested for soliciting sex from a police decoy while his children (aged two and five) were in the back seat, proposing to have sex in his car and then.  When the undercover police woman when she said she would not have sex with children in the vehicle, the man agreed to leave them alone in the car while he went to a motel to buy sex.  A similar instance occurred four months earlier in Santa Ana.  Other serious problems include the disappearance and homicide of prostituted women.  Serial killers of prostituted women have also operated  in the city.  In 2013, the body of a prostituted woman was found in a garbage processor, and the subsequent investigation found two men to have killed at least four women in Santa Ana and Anaheim.

Santa Ana has taken an aggressive approach to combating prostitution, making over 5,000 prostitution arrests between 2003 and 2012.  However, the vast majority of their efforts have been directed at the providers of commercial sex, rather than the pimps or buyers.  Many pimps and sex traffickers exploiting women or children were arrested in recent years in Santa Ana and Orange County, as well as large numbers of survivors.

The first known reverse stings in the city occurred in the 1970s, and Santa Ana went through a period in the 1990s when they substantially increased their efforts to combat demand.  The Santa Ana Police Department conducted street level reverse stings a few times per year in the 1970s and 1980s, and stepped up to monthly or bi-monthly operations in the 1990s.  Santa Ana and Anaheim arrested nearly the same number of men and women for prostitution offenses in the 1990s, but since 2000 the balance has since shifted toward arresting mostly women. In 2010, more than 80 percent of arrests at both police departments were of women and girls.

Police and others in the community acknowledge that arrested prostituted women accomplishes little, aside from showing community members who complain about prostitution they are doing “something.”   They also acknowledge that targeting demand is a more promising strategy.  However, they say they conduct fewer reverse stings because the operations are more labor intensive, and they say they have fewer women officers that can serve as effective decoys.  Police departments often exchange undercover investigators since the problems of becoming known as police officers to a local community of criminals is common to many offenses, not just prostitution (e.g., drug trafficking, auto theft and burglary rings).  Apparently, at that time (up through 2010, roughly) the Santa Ana police department felt that it was better to arrest and re-arrest hundreds of prostituted women (more than 600 arrests in 2010 alone) even though they acknowledged it accomplished little, rather than investing the same amount of resources on a smaller number of reverse stings that were more likely to have a meaningful impact on the problems related to prostitution.

In the period around 2010-2013, Santa Ana police began shifting enforcement emphasis, and in the decade since, has largely viewed those providing prostitution as victims forced into a risky lifestyle by difficult circumstances and manipulation rather than criminals, and increasing its arrests of pimps and customers. In May 2019, the Santa Ana Police Department announced it was unveiling a “naming and shaming” effort for those arrested of prostitution. On May 27, the names and booking photos of individuals arrested and charged with “prostitution related offenses,” would be posted on a new website run by the Santa Ana Police Department. The individual postings will stay online for 15 days before being removed, according to the department. For several years prior to 2019, the Orange County District Attorney’s Office has posted the photos of “johns” convicted of purchasing prostitutes. But the new, police-run Santa Ana website will apparently go further by identifying people arrested prior to a conviction, and by also including suspected pimps and prostitutes who are not underage or the victims of trafficking.

During their periods of attention to sex buyers, there have been special police teams assigned to investigate prostitution which has conducted a “john program” in Santa Ana. The reverse stings that have used undercover female officers have arrested up to 30 men per operation. Many of these stings happen on a street in Santa Ana known for street prostitution, Harbor Boulevard.  Santa Ana does not have a john school, but the District Attorney’s Office said that a comparable route is available to people accused of low-level misdemeanors, including solicitation. If they provide a DNA sample and complete a one- or two-day diversion class (designed for a broad range of misdemeanors, and not designed specifically to address the needs of those involved in buying or selling commercial sex), prosecutors dismiss the charges against them.

In May 2013, the Orange County District Attorney’s Office announced that it would begin releasing the identities of all sex buyers arrested in the county in an attempt to use shaming to deter consumer-level demand.  In June 2013, the Santa Ana PD conducted a reverse sting, and publicly identified the men arrested.

In late April 2015, SAPD officers, this time working with the Orange County District Attorney’s Office, staged another reversal along Harbor Boulevard. Although the number and identities of arrestees’ were not disclosed to the public, media reported that at least one of the men arrested had “left his 1-year-old and 5-year-old sons in the car” while he attempted to pay for sex with a police decoy at a nearby motel.

In February, 2020 the results from the statewide “Operation Reclaim and Rebuild” were announced.  The week-long operation was led by the Los Angeles Regional Human Trafficking Task Force and 70 participating federal, state and local law enforcement agencies (including the Santa Ana Police Department) and task forces from across California.  In addition to rescuing and serving victims of sexual slavery and human trafficking and arresting then prosecuting their captors, Operation Reclaim and Rebuild also seeks to disrupt the demand for vulnerable victims by targeting their customers. Investigators focused enforcement operations wherever the trafficking of human beings took place and included street-level and internet-based operations. The operation deployed specially trained cyber detectives who posed as vulnerable teenagers and interacted with suspects on social media (i.e., traffickers, and customers who sought to exploit and sexually abuse children). Operation Reclaim and Rebuild resulted in 266 male sex buyers arrested for the charge of Solicitation, as well as the recovery of 76 adult and 11 minor victims and the arrest of 27 suspected traffickers. Downloadable Material: Talking Points and Slides

Key Sources

National Assessment Survey

Reverse Stings:

Web-Based Reverse Stings:


Sex Trafficking and Child Sexual Exploitation in the Area:

Background on Prostitution in the Area:

Documented Violence against Individuals Engaged in Prostitution in the Area:

Child Endangerment:

State California
Type City
Population 339555
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